Since mid-March, Guatemala has been on a nationwide lock-down. A nightly 6 p.m.- to- 5 a.m. curfew is mandatory. Daytime automobile travel is restricted to certain dates- license plates that end in even numbers can be on the roads on even dates, and those ending in odd numbers can be out on odd dates.
Masks are mandatory. People caught not wearing one are subject to a 150,000 quetzales fine, which is the equivalent to about $20,000 US. Foreigners have been restricted from entering the country. And internal travel, from department-to-department has been drastically reduced since the onset of the virus.
These travel restrictions have slowed down the infection rate in Guatemala. A country of some 17 million people, Guatemala has 25,787 people who have tested positive for coronavirus as of July 8. Compare that to Florida, which has about 20 million people and 233,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of July 10.
Lockdown Slows Coffee Exports
So, while a heavy hand has likely slowed the coronavirus death-rate in Guatemala, it has also slowed the movement of coffee throughout the country.
When the coronavirus first hit Guatemala in mid-March, the 2020 coffee harvest was coming to a close. Most farmers had finished picking their ripe red coffee cherries, and the next phase of processing was about to begin.
After the coffee cherry is picked, it must be depulped, washed, dried, processed to remove excess parchment and sorted for quality- to ensure there are no defects, which is important for the quality of specialty-grade coffee.
Most of this process happens away from the farmers' homes, in central warehousing facilities. Once the coffee leaves these warehouses, it moves toward big cities and on to ports.
This is the critical first-leg of a journey that ultimately gets coffee to ports (and then roasters... and then coffee drinkers) around the world.
But with travel restrictions stretching across the nation, the movement slowed.
"We'd be processing about 30 percent of our total sales, so it's critical that we move it," said Carlos Reynoso, general manager of Manos Campesinas, a secondary level cooperative that helps sell and process coffee for small-scale coffee farmers across Guatemala. Through Manos, we receive coffee from the APECAFORM cooperative, a group of about 265 small-scale farmers who are located in the San Marcos department, near the border with Chiapas, Mexico.
About 150 miles away, further north and east into Guatemala's highlands, the Chajul cooperative was having similar challenges. "We are about a month-and-a-half behind schedule," said Romy Perez, director of sales for the 1,200 member cooperative that also supplies us with coffee.
Despite the challenge, the producer groups were able to meet their exporting commitments and are on-track to get their coffee on boats, destined for coffee drinkers worldwide.
But the effort took entrepreneurship and fast-action. Carlos recounted getting special permits from the national government in order to move the coffee, and also sending in workers to warehouses before the 6 p.m. curfew so that they could process coffee all night and day- an effort to both respect social distancing and the nationwide curfew.
Farmers Paid but Food Costs Rising
Luckily, the farmers we work with have recently been paid for their 2020 coffee harvests.
But this year more than ever, farmers must make their income stretch to be able to eat the rest of the year. Guatemala's coffee farmers are not necessarily subsistence farmers.
They farm commercial crops like coffee or cardamom or honey to make money. And although some might have small garden plots or a few chickens at home, they purchase food like rice, beans, cooking oil and sugar to supplement their diets.
And prices for those foods are increasing. As travel has slowed and supermarkets or small convenience stores have cut hours, the price of food items have increased.
"Producers know this a tough-time," Romy said of the Chajul Cooperative.
Knowing this could be an issue, Sweetwater's coffee importer, Cooperative Coffees issued a series of Covid Relief Grants to coffee producer groups back in May.
Chajul and Manos Campesinas each received $10,000 Covid Relief Grants to help pay for food for coffee farmers.
Last week, the Chajul cooperative put that money to work, distributing a month's worth of beans, rice, and other basic foodstuffs to the 1,200 farmers who co-own and operate the Chajul cooperative.
The Chajul cooperative offers some social-safety-net resources for its members, as is the case for many coffee cooperatives. Federal governments in coffee-producing countries often offer little-to-no resources for remote indigenous communities, so coffee cooperatives often take on the dual role of being economic drivers for a community, as well as social safety nets.
Co-ops also invest in the continuing education of their members and infrastructure improvements that will improve the quality of their exports.
Believing in the power of this farmer-owned business structure, Cooperative Coffees began setting aside money to help fund cooperative-led initiatives in rural indigenous communities. Some 23 roasters co-own Cooperative Coffees, and each time one of them purchases a pound of coffee through the importer, they contribute $0.03 to a fund for producer-led initiatives. These Covid Relief Grants were funded from those monies.
Bright Spot: No Covid Infections in Producer Groups
Though living in rural Guatemala comes with its own set of challenges, it may be helping to slow the spread of Covid-19 at to producer communities.
As of July 8, no producers at Chajul had reported contracting coronavirus, and none had been reported at Apecaform as of early June.
Access to medical care is sparse in producer communities, so some communities have instituted their own quarantine requirements.
Carlos explained that a mandatory quarantine of 2-4 weeks would be required for people entering some of the villages he works with.
"I think one of the things that is crystal clear is everyone's sense of vulnerability," he said.
"Everyone can get sick." For Carlos, this common vulnerability is a stark reminder to collaborate.
"It has reminded us that 'united, we can overcome."
Our Guatemala Coffee
Throughout the year, our Guatemala coffee either comes from the APECAFORM or Chajul cooperative. Every purchase you make, not only helps create demand for fair trade, organic coffee, but it also helps fund producer initiatives like the Covid Relief Fund.